George Henty.

The Curse of Carne's Hold: A Tale of Adventure



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Here he paused for a minute. So far the effect of his words had been most favourable, and as he stopped, his friends breathed more easily, and the jury furtively nodded to each other with an air of relief.

"As to the glove," Ronald Mervyn went on, deliberately, "I cannot account for its being in the place where it was found. I certainly had both gloves on when I rode over here; how I lost it, or where I lost it, I am wholly unable to say. I may also add that I admit that I went direct from the drawing-room to the stable, and did not pass round the side of the house where the glove was found." He again paused. "As to where I was between one o'clock and half-past two the next morning, I can give you no evidence whatever." A gasp of dismay broke from almost every one in the room.

"It was becoming dark when I mounted my horse," he said, "and I rode straight away; it is my custom, as my fellow-officers will tell you, when I am out of spirits, or anything has upset me, to ride away for hours until the fit has left me, and I have sometimes been out all night. It was so on this occasion. I mounted and rode away. I cannot say which road I took, for when I ride upon such occasions, I am absorbed in my thoughts and my horse goes where he will. Of myself, I do not know exactly at what hour I got home, but I asked the stableman, who took my horse, next morning, and he said the clock over the stable-gate had just struck half-past three when I rode in. I do not know that I have anything more to say."

The silence was almost oppressive for a minute or two after he had finished, and then the coroner said: "The room will now be cleared of all except the jury."

The public trooped out in silence. Each man looked in his neighbour's face to see what he thought, but no one ventured upon a word until they had gone through the hall and out into the garden. Then they broke up in little knots, and began in low tones to discuss the scene in the dining-room. The shock given by the news of the murder of Miss Carne was scarcely greater than that which had now been caused by the proceedings before the coroner. A greater part of those present at the inquest were personal friends of the Carnes, together with three or four farmers having large holdings under them. Very few of the villagers were present, it being felt that although, no doubt, every one had a right to admission to the inquest, it was not for folks at Carnesford to thrust themselves into the affairs of the family at The Hold.

Ronald Mervyn had, like the rest, left the room when it was cleared. As he went out into the garden, two or three of his friends were about to speak to him, but he turned off with a wave of the hand, and paced up and down the front of the house, walking slowly, with his head bent.

"This is a horribly awkward business for Mervyn," one of the young men, who would have spoken to him, said. "Of course Mervyn is innocent; still it is most unfortunate that he can't prove where he was."

"Most unfortunate," another repeated.

"Then there's that affair of the glove and the quarrel. Things look very awkward, I must say. Of course, I don't believe for a moment Mervyn did it, because we know him, but I don't know what view a jury of strangers might take of it."

Two or three of the others were silent. There was present in their minds the story of The Hold, and the admitted fact of insanity in the family of Ronald Mervyn, which was in close connection with the Carnes. Had it been any one else they, too, would have disbelieved the possibility of Ronald Mervyn having murdered Margaret Carne. As it was, they doubted: there had been other murders in the history of the Carnes. But no one gave utterance to these thoughts, they were all friends or acquaintances of the Mervyn family. Ronald might yet be able to clear himself completely. At any rate, at present no one was inclined to admit that there could be any doubt of his innocence.

"Well, what do you think, doctor, now?" Lieutenant Gulston asked his friend, as separated from the rest they strolled across the garden.

"I don't quite know what to think," Dr. Mackenzie said, after a pause.

"No?" Gulston said in surprise. "Why it seems to me as clear as the sun at noon-day. What I heard seemed pretty conclusive. Now there is the confirmation of the finding of the glove, and this cock and bull story of his riding about for hours and not knowing where he was."

"Yes, I give due weight to these things," the doctor said, after another pause, "and admit that they constitute formidable circumstantial evidence. I can't account for the glove being found there. I admit that is certainly an awkward fact to get over. The ride I regard as unfortunate rather than damnatory, especially if, as he says, his fellow officers can prove that at times, when upset, he was in the habit of going off for hours on horseback."

"But who else could have done it, Mackenzie? You see the evidence of the doctor went to show that she was murdered when asleep; no common burglar would have taken life needlessly, and have run the risk of hanging; the whole thing points to the fact that it was done out of revenge or out of ill-feeling of some sort, and has it not been shown that there is not a soul in the world except Mervyn who had a shadow of ill-feeling against her?"

"No, that has not been shown," the doctor said, quietly. "No one was her enemy, so far as the witnesses who were asked knew; but that is a very different thing; it's a very difficult thing to prove that any one in the world has no enemies. Miss Carne may have had some; some servant may have been discharged upon her complaint, she may have given deep offence to some one or other. There is never any saying."

"Of course that is possible," said the lieutenant again, "but the evidence all goes against one man, who is known to have an enmity against her, and who has, to say the least of it, a taint of insanity in his blood. What are the grounds on which you doubt?"

"Principally on his own statement, Gulston. I watched him narrowly from the time that you gave your evidence, and I own that my impression is that he is innocent. I give every weight to your evidence and that afforded by the glove, and to his being unable to prove where he was; and yet, alike from his face, his manner, and the tone of his voice, I do not think that he is capable of murder."

No other words were spoken for some time, then the lieutenant asked:

"Do you think that an insane person could commit a crime of this kind and have no memory of it in their saner moments?"

"That is a difficult question, Gulston. I do believe that a person in a sudden paroxysm of madness might commit a murder, and upon his recovery be perfectly unconscious of it; but I do not for a moment believe that a madman sufficiently sane to act with the cunning here shown in the mode of obtaining access, by the quiet stealthiness in which the victim was killed whilst in her sleep, and by the attempt to divert suspicion by the abstraction of the trinkets, would lose all memory of his actions afterwards. If Captain Mervyn did this thing, I am sure he would be conscious of it, and I am convinced, as I said, that he is not conscious."

"What will the jury think?" the lieutenant asked after a long pause.

"I think they are sure to return a verdict against him. A coroner's jury are not supposed to go to the bottom of a matter; they are simply to declare whether there is prim? facie evidence connecting any one with a crime; such evidence as is sufficient to justify them in coming to a conclusion that it should at any rate be further examined into. It's a very different thing with a jury at a trial; they have the whole of the evidence that can be obtained before them. They have all the light that can be thrown on the question by the counsel on both sides, and the assistance of the summing-up of the judge, and have then to decide if the guilt of the man is absolutely proven. A coroner's jury is not supposed to go into the whole merits of the case, and their finding means no more than the decision of a magistrate to commit a prisoner for trial. I think the coroner will tell the jury that in this case such evidence as there is before them points to the fact that Captain Mervyn committed this murder, and that it will be their duty to find such a verdict as will ensure the case being further gone into."

"Most of the jury are tenants of the Carnes," Gulston said; "two or three of them I know are, for I met them at the inn when I was over here fishing. They will scarcely like to find against a relation of the family."

"I don't suppose they will," the doctor argued, "but at the same time the coroner will not improbably point out to them that their verdict will simply lead to further investigation of the case, and that even for Captain Mervyn's own sake it is desirable that this should take place, for that the matter could not possibly rest here. Were they to acquit him, I imagine the Chief Constable would at once arrest him and bring him before a magistrate, who, upon hearing a repetition of the evidence given to-day, would have no choice but to commit him for trial."

"I suppose he would do that, anyhow?" Lieutenant Gulston said.

"Not necessarily. I fancy a man can be tried upon the finding of a coroner's jury as well as upon that of a magistrate. Perhaps, however, if the coroner's jury finds against him he may be formally brought up before the magistrates, and a portion of the evidence heard, sufficient to justify them in committing him for trial. See, people are going into the house again. Probably they have thrown the door open, and the jury are going to give their finding. I don't think we need go in."

CHAPTER VI.
RUTH POWLETT

Lieutenant Gulston and his companion had not long to wait to learn the verdict, for in a few minutes the people began to pour out of the house, and a constable came out, and, after looking round, walked up to the lieutenant.

"Mr. Gulston," he said, "your presence will be required to-morrow at eleven o'clock at Mr. Volkes's. Captain Mervyn will be brought up there at eleven o'clock to-morrow."

"Very well," Mr. Gulston replied. "What verdict have the coroners jury found?"

"They have found Captain Mervyn guilty of wilful murder," the man replied.

The next morning the inquiry was heard before Mr. Volkes and two other magistrates, and the doctor's evidence, that of Mr. Gulston, the gardener, the cook, and the constable who found the glove, was considered sufficient. Mr. Carne was not summoned, and although Ruth Powlett's name was called, she did not answer to it, Dr. Arrowsmith explaining to the bench that she was too ill to be present. Captain Mervyn was asked if he had any questions to ask the witnesses, or any statement to make; but he simply said that he should reserve his defence, and the case was then adjourned for a week to see if any further evidence would be forthcoming, the magistrates intimating that unless some altogether new light was thrown upon the subject they should commit the prisoner for trial.

Very gravely and silently the men who composed the coroner's jury walked down to Carnesford; scarce a word was spoken on the way, and a stranger, meeting them, might have supposed, not unnaturally, that they were returning from a funeral. The news had arrived before them, having been carried down at full speed by one of the few villagers who had been present. It had at first been received with absolute incredulity. The idea that Captain Mervyn should kill Margaret Carne seemed so wild a proposition that the first person to arrive with it was wholly disbelieved, and even the confirmation of those who followed him was also doubted. People, however, moved towards the foot of the hill to meet the jury, and a small crowd had collected by the time they had come down. The jury, upon being questioned, admitted that they had found Ronald Mervyn guilty, and when the fact was grasped, a sort of awed silence fell upon their hearers.

"Why, whatever were you all thinking of?" one of the men said. "Why, you must have been downright mad. You find that Captain Mervyn was the murderer of his own cousin, and Mr. Carne your own landlord, too! I never heard tell of such a thing."

The jury, indeed, were regarded almost as culprits; even to themselves now, their verdict seemed monstrous, though at the time the evidence had appeared so strong that they had felt themselves unable to resist the coroner's expressed opinion that, upon the evidence before them, they had no course open but to return a verdict of wilful murder against Ronald Mervyn.

"You will hear about it presently, lads," Hiram Powlett said. "If you had been in our place, and had heard what we have heard, you would have said the same. I should have no more believed it myself this morning, if any one had told me that Captain Mervyn had murdered his cousin, than I should if they had told me that the mill stream was running the wrong way; but now I sees otherwise. There ain't one of us here as wouldn't have given another verdict if we could have done so, but having heard what we heard there weren't no other verdict to be given. I would have given a hundred pounds myself to have found any other way, but I couldn't go against my conscience; and besides, the coroner told us that if Captain Mervyn is innocent, he will have full opportunity of proving it at the trial. And now I must be off home, for I hear Mr. Carne sent down Ruth, as soon as she had given her evidence, in one of his carriages."

Ruth had so far recovered that she was sitting on a chair by the fire when her father entered. She had heard nothing of what had taken place at the inquest beyond her own evidence, and she looked anxiously at her father as he slowly took off his coat and hat and hung them up, and came over to the fire beside her.

"How are you feeling now, Ruth? You were looking sadly when you were in the court."

"I believe you will kill the child between you," Mrs. Powlett said, testily, as she entered with the dinner. "Any one can see with half an eye that she ain't fit to be going before a court and giving evidence after the shock as she 'as had. She ought to have been left quiet. If you had half the feeling of a man in you, Hiram Powlett, you wouldn't have let them do it. If I had been there I should have got up and said: 'Your worship can see for yourself as my daughter is more fit to be in bed than to be worrited and questioned here. She ain't got nothing to tell you more than you knows yourself. She just came in and found her mistress dead, and that's all she knows about it.'"

"And what verdict did you find, father?" Ruth asked, as soon as her mother had finished.

"Verdict! What verdict should they find," Mrs. Powlett said, angrily, "but that they just knew nothing at all about it?"

"That wasn't the verdict, Hesba," Hiram Powlett said, as he seated himself at the table; "I wish to God it had been. There was things came out at the trial as altogether altered the case. We found as one had been quarrelling with Miss Carne, and threatening what he would do to her. We found as something belonging to him had been found close at hand, where it could only have been put somewhere about the time of the murder. We found as the person couldn't tell us where he had been at the time; and though it were sorely against us to do it, and seemed the most unnatural thing in the world, we had to find a verdict of wilful murder against Captain Mervyn."

Ruth had risen from her seat as her father was speaking; her face had grown whiter and whiter as he went on, and one hand had gone to her heart, while the other clutched at the back of the chair. As he finished she gave a sudden start, and burst into a scream of hysterical laughter, so startling Hiram Powlett and his wife, neither of whom was looking at her, that the former upset his chair as he started to his feet, while the latter dropped the plate she was in the act of setting before him.

For some minutes the wild laughter rang through the house. Hesba had at once taken the girl in her arms, and seated her in the chair again, and after trying for a minute or two vainly to soothe her, turned to Hiram.

"Don't stand staring there, Hiram; run for the doctor. Look what you have done, with your stories about your courts and your verdicts. You have just scared her out of her mind."

Fortunately as Hiram ran up into the village street he saw Dr. Arrowsmith – who had waited at The Hold, talking over the matter to some of his neighbours – driving down the hill, and at once fetched him in to Ruth.

"The girl is in violent hysterics, Hiram," the doctor said, as soon as he had entered. "Carry her upstairs, and lay her down on the bed; it's no use trying to get her to drink that now" – for Mrs. Powlett was trying in vain to get Ruth to take some brandy – "she cannot swallow. Now I will help you upstairs with her. The great thing is to get her to lie down."

It seemed hours to Hiram Powlett, as he listened to the wild screaming and laughter overhead, but in reality it was not many minutes before the doctor came down again.

"I am going to drive home and get some chloroform," he said, "I shan't be two minutes gone;" and before Hiram could ask a question he hurried out, jumped into his dogcart, and drove off.

There was no change until his return, except that once or twice there was a moment's cessation in the screaming. Hiram could not remain in the house, but went out and walked up and down until the doctor returned.

"No change, I hear," the latter remarked, as he jumped down from the dogcart, for Ruth's cries could be heard down at the gate of the garden.

Then he hurried on into the house and upstairs, poured some chloroform into a handkerchief, and waved it in Ruth's face. Gradually the screams abated, and in two or three minutes the girl was lying quiet and still.

"Now, lift her head, Mrs. Powlett, while I pour a few drops of this narcotic between her lips."

"Can she swallow, sir?"

"Not consciously, but it will find its way down her throat. I don't like doing it, but we must send her to sleep. Weak as she is, and shaken by all she has gone through, she will kill herself if she goes on with these hysterics."

As soon as Ruth showed signs of returning consciousness, the doctor again placed the handkerchief near her face, keeping his fingers carefully on her pulse as he did so.

This was repeated again and again, and then the opiate began to take effect.

"I think she will do now," he said, at last; "it's a hazardous experiment, but it was necessary. Now you can go down to your husband for a few minutes, and tell him how she is. I shall remain here for a time."

"She is off now," Mrs. Powlett said, as she came downstairs.

"Asleep?" Hiram asked.

"Well, it's sleep, or chloroform, or laudanum, or a little of each of them," Mrs. Powlett said. "Anyhow, she is lying quiet, and looks as if she were asleep. Dear, dear, what things girls are. And to think that all these years we have never had a day's sickness with her, and now it all comes one on the top of the other; but, of course, when one's got a husband who comes and blurts things out before a girl that's that delicate that the wind would blow her over, what can you expect?"

"I didn't mean – " Hiram began, but Hesba cut him short.

"That's the way with men; they never do mean; they never use the little sense they have got. I don't expect that there's a man, woman, or child in Carnesford that wouldn't have known better. Here you had her down here for well nigh a month as bad as she could be; then she gets that terrible shock and goes off fainting all day; then she has to go into court, and as if that wasn't enough for her, you comes and blurts out before her that you found as Captain Mervyn murdered his cousin. I wouldn't call myself a man if I was you, Hiram Powlett. I had a better idea of you before."

"What could I have said?" urged Hiram, feebly.

"Said?" Hesba repeated, scornfully. "In the first place you need not have said anything; then if you couldn't hold your tongue, you might have said that, of course, you had found a verdict of wilful murder against some one or other, which would be quite true; but even if it hadn't been you need not have minded that when it comes to saving your own daughter's life. There, sit down and have some food, and go out to your mill."

Hiram Powlett had no appetite whatever, but he meekly sat down, ate a few mouthfuls of food, and then, when Hesba left the room for a moment, took his cap from the peg and went out. Mrs. Powlett ate her meal standing; she had no more appetite for it than her husband, but she knew she should not have an opportunity of coming downstairs again when once the doctor had left, so she conscientiously forced herself to eat as much as usual, and then, after clearing away the things, and warning the little servant that she must not make the slightest sound, she went into the parlour and sat down until the doctor came downstairs.



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